NHL needs to take a look at concussions
The recent sidelining of Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby due to a concussion not only dispelled the myth the NHL protected or coddled the young superstar but served as proof it still has a long way to go to protect its players from serious head injuries.
Although the league introduced a new rule this season to crack down on blindside hits to the head, it's done little to significantly reduce concussion injuries.
By the midseason mark, 45 NHL players either were or had been sidelined by concussions. That number included Crosby, Boston's Marc Savard, Minnesota's Pierre-Marc Bouchard, St. Louis' Andy McDonald and David Perron, Colorado's Peter Mueller and Nashville's Matthew Lombardi.
Of those, Savard and Bouchard entered 2010-11 still sidelined by post-concussion symptoms from concussions suffered in previous seasons, while Mueller was injured during a preseason game.
Crosby was the league's best player this season and was well ahead of his peers in the scoring race prior to his injury. The loss of the NHL's top player to a concussion has increased criticism of how the NHL has addressed head injuries and calls to ban all hits to the head.
So-called “purists” of the game argue such a move would ultimately take body-checking completely out of the game, turning it into a less physical and thus less enjoyable sport.
But these criticisms are nonsense, made by those suspicious of change even though it would be for the betterment of the game and its players.
Such resistance isn't surprising, as the NHL has a long history of skepticism and resistance to change. Just ask any goaltender who played during the 1960s with a face mask or players in the 1990s who wore visors to protect their eyes. Critics derided them as cowards, claiming those measures would adversely impact performance yet the game never suffered by the adoption of such common-sense, and now common-place, protective gear.
Theories abound as to the continuing high number of concussions.
Some suggest players are bigger now but the rink size remains the same. Others point to the plastic-encased shoulder and elbow pads worn by today's players, which provide personal protection from injury but also distribute more punishment to an unprotected or unsuspecting opponent.
Lack of respect among players is also cited due to the implementation of the “instigator” rule, which has made the role of “on-ice” enforcer virtually useless, allowing lesser-talented players to take liberties against an opponent's star players.
All have been contributing factors. The players, however, can't be shrunk and no team will be expanding its ice surfaces anytime soon. There's no real push from the league or the players to make modifications to equipment that could reduce inflicted injury. The instigator rule won't be waived because the league doesn't want a return to the bad old days when bench-clearing brawls were the norm.
More respect toward opponents would certainly help, and in recent years some players have spoken out about it, but there's currently little sign by most of their peers that they intend to change.
While there is no question the league had to (finally) address the issue of blindside hits to the head, it appears the new rule has created considerable confusion among players, coaches, general managers and on-ice officials over what constitutes a penalty for such hits.
What's required, however, is a clear ruling on what is and isn't allowed, and if that means banning any type of hit to the head, so be it if it'll significantly reduce concussion injuries. Despite the braying of the old-fashioned critics, the game certainly won't suffer because of it any more than it suffered with the implementation of other protective rules and gear.
But it's not just up to the league to implement this ruling and ensure it's properly enforced. The NHL Players Association membership has to finally admit this is a serious issue, one that is not only career-threatening but holds the possibility for serious physical consequences once their playing careers are over.
That means players must become more responsible for their on-ice actions, avoiding the temptation to hit a player in a compromising position with intent to injure.
Of course hockey is a physical, violent game. The possibility of accidental concussion injuries due to incidental contact will always be there. Banning all hits to the head won't eliminate concussions from the game, but it can at least eliminate those brought about by deliberate action, which are the main reason for these injuries.
All the theorizing and suggestions won't matter unless the league and its players work together toward addressing this growing problem. It's only a matter of time until a player suffers not just a career-threatening, but perhaps a life-threatening concussion injury.
It'll be too late after the fact to take appropriate action.